Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bethune, John Drinkwater

BETHUNE, JOHN DRINKWATER (1762–1844), originally John Drinkwater, historian of the siege of Gibraltar, was born at Latchford, near Warrington, in June 1762. His father, John Drinkwater, formerly a surgeon in the navy, was at the time of his birth a medical practitioner at Salford, then a suburb of Manchester. At the age of fifteen he joined as an ensign a regiment of volunteers raised by a subscription in Manchester, at a time of indignant excitement produced by the news of General Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga. The Manchester regiment, as it was called, more properly the 72nd regiment of the line, or Royal Manchester Volunteers, was not, however, sent to America, but to Gibraltar. Gibraltar was besieged in June 1779 by a Spanish-French force [see Elliot, George Augustus, Lord Heathfield]. During the whole of the siege, which lasted until February 1783, Drinkwater kept a careful record of events. With the peace the 72nd, in which Drinkwater had become a captain, was ordered home and disbanded. From his memoranda chiefly Drinkwater compiled the work 'A History of the Siege of Gibraltar, 1779–1783, with a description and account of that garrison from the earliest period. By John Drinkwater, Captain in the late Seventy-second Regiment, or Royal Manchester Volunteers.' Plans and views accompanied the letterpress of the volume, which appears to have been published in 1785, and was dedicated by permission to the king. The narrative, one of our few military classics, went through four editions in as many years. A cheap reprint of it was added in 1844 to the Home and Colonial Library. In 1787 Drinkwater purchased a company in the second battalion of the 1st or Royal regiment of foot, then stationed at Gibraltar, whither he proceeded. By Lord Heathfield, who had been governor of Gibraltar during the siege, he was publicly thanked for his work. During this second stay at Gibraltar, Drinkwater established a garrison library, which served as a model for many other similar institutions.

Drinkwater accompanied his regiment to Toulon, and acted as military secretary during its occupation by the English. After the English annexation of Corsica he became secretary for the military department and deputy judge-advocate during the English occupation of that island and the vice-royalty of Sir Gilbert Elliot, afterwards Earl of Minto. Corsica having been evacuated, Drinkwater returned with Sir Gilbert in the Minerva, carrying the pendant of Nelson as commodore, with whom he had formed while in Corsica a close intimacy. Sir John Jervis's squadron off Cape St. Vincent having been reached, Drinkwater witnessed the battle of St. Vincent. The news of the victory was brought to England by Drinkwater. Nelson was not mentioned in the published despatches; and considering his services to have been under-estimated, Drinkwater published anonymously a 'Narrative of the Battle of St. Vincent,' in which full justice was done to Nelson.

In 1794 Drinkwater had become by purchase major, and in 1796 lieutenant-colonel. of his regiment. He was placed on half-pay with the rank of colonel, when forming the lonff connection with the civil administration of the army, which began by his acceptance, after Sir Gilbert Elliot had strongly recommended him to Pitt, of a commission to arrange and settle the complicated accounts connected with the Enghsh occupation of Toulon and Corsica. In 1799 he was appointed commissary-general of the force which was being despatched to the Helder, and which he accompanied. In 1801 he accepted an honorary appointment in the household of the Duke of Kent. In 1805 he was nominated a member of the parliamentary commission of military inquiry, becoming afterwards its chairman. In 1807 he declined the under-secretaryship of state for war and the colonies offered to him by Windham. In 1811 he was appointed comptroller of army accounts, and filled the office for five-and-twenty years, until it was abolished in 1835. In 1840 he republished, in aid of the fund for the Nelson testimonial, and with an acknowledgment of its authorship, his 'Narrative of the Battle of St. Vincent, adding to it some new anecdotes of Nelson. He was preparing an enlarged edition of the history of the siege of Gibraltar, of the garrison of which he was then, it is said, the sole survivor, when he died, aged 81, on 16 Jan. 1844, at Thomcroft, near Leatherhead, in Surrey. After his witlidrawal from public life, and on the death of his brother-in-law, whose property, Balfour Castle in Fifeshire, his wife inherited, he had assumed the surname of Bethune. Besides being the author of the two works already mentioned, he published in 1830 'A Compendium of the Regent's Canal, showing its connection with the metropolis,' and in 1835 he printed for private circulation 'Statements respecting the late Departments of the comptrollership of the Army Accounts, showing the inconveniency which will probably result from its abolition.'

[Gent. Mag. for April 1844; Lancashire "Worthies, second scries (1877); Catalogue of the British Museum Library.]

F. E.